Between a quick glance as it flits between the branches, or obscured by the shadows of dense foliage, trying to identify a bird or beast in the outdoors can be quite a challenge. While habitat, movements, and physical size help narrow down the guesses, a good guide book can make it much easier to identify the critter you just observed.
Rarely will just one guide book be enough to confirm the identity of an animal you might be seeing for the first time. Sure, it’s a sparrow, but which sparrow? Or, is it the eastern or western variety of that species?
While using other clues such as movement, song and surroundings from information in the guide book, having the option to reference at least two color images can be the defining factor in successfully identifying your sighting.
Colorful illustrations or photos, coupled with a descriptive text, can most often bring you to the exact species – sometimes even to the particular sex or age category of the specimen in view. Whether it’s the width of the band across the back of a ground squirrel or the location of the streak near the eye of a game bird – the guidebook can help you narrow down your options through a process of elimination of known, visual cues.
It can be very difficult and inconclusive to try to identify many animals simply by referring to just one color image, illustrated or photographed. The natural lighting outdoors wreaks havoc with the color balance to the naked eye and in photographs. Conversely, a color-perfect rendition of a specimen created on an easel indoors seldom shows those colors in the same degree of vividness you’ll find in the field.
A key to helping identify an animal, particularly birds, is to look not only for the primary color pattern or obvious marking (black body, gray head with white streak), but also note whether that streak crosses through the eye or arcs above/below it. Does it have a dark beak or a yellow one? What color are its legs? These may seem like subtleties, but small details can prove to be very definitive to a particular species. A good photo guide book reference might have that info, but only the illustrated graphic might show its true colors.
Plant identification is much simpler since you can often hold the unidentified suspect in your fingertips while you search through your guides. That said, two different books might show the same species in two different lights, age of maturity or other factors that make the images of the exact same plant species look completely different.
Two is definitely better than one when it comes to adding nature guidebooks to your outdoor library. Even within those two categories, check out the quality of the images and the descriptions offered for each.